Nearly three months after a landmark $8.3 million ruling against Teck Metals Ltd., the Colville Confederated Tribes are still waiting for their court-awarded settlement from the British Columbia mining outfit for the damage incurred by more than a century of heavy-metals dumping into the Columbia River.
In August U.S. District Court for the District of Eastern Washington ordered Teck to pay $8.3 million to the Colville Confederated Tribes to cover damages stemming from 1896, when Teck/Cominco, now Teck Metals Ltd., began dumping 400 tons of waste a day into the Columbia River. The company is located near Trail, British Columbia about 10 miles from the U.S. border. The Columbia River in turn drains into Lake Roosevelt on the Colville Reservation.
Teck Metals is appealing that decision, challenging Judge Lonny Suko’s right to judgment if future claims regarding damages to natural resources will still be made. The tribes in turn argue that the remaining causes of action are separate claims and thus are no reason to delay this payment. The State of Washington supported the tribes in a recent separate filing, asking the Ninth Circuit to deny Teck’s request.
This $8.3 million payment to the Colville Tribes is reimbursement for all past costs incurred by the Tribes in their ongoing legal battles. That includes such things as attorneys’ fees, expert witnesses and environmental investigation since the legal fight started. Teck must also pay for anticipated costs of cleanup and of restoring natural resources that have been damaged. Those damages to natural resources will be tried in court later. The tribes are hoping this ruling will also cause cleanup to begin more quickly.
The Colville Tribes first brought suit in 2004. That came after earlier attempts, dating back to the 1990s, to get Canada to require Teck to quit polluting the river, but the company didn’t comply.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified Lake Roosevelt as a Superfund site in 2003, adding that Teck would not be responsible for cleanup. The tribes challenged the responsibility aspect, and the court ruled that a company in another country cannot deliberately pollute U.S. waters. As a tribal spokesman said at that time, “The question is not where the polluter is located but where the pollution is located.”
The amount of pollution is extreme. One report says that between 1896 and 1995 the Teck Metals smelter dumped 400 tons of waste a day from their smelting process, about 10 miles from the border, directly into the Columbia River. In 2012 the tribes won a major battle when Teck admitted in court that millions of tons of toxic substances were dumped into the river including 250,000 tons of zinc and lead plus another 132,000 tons of other hazardous substances which included more than 200 tons of mercury, cadmium and arsenic.
Legal history was also won by the tribes when the courts struck down the idea that a foreign country could not be held liable under U.S. law. In December 2012 a U.S. District Court determined that this British Columbia mining company would be liable for cleanup costs under the Superfund Law, the first time a foreign company had been subjected to U.S. Law.
“It (Teck) was told by the government that its slag was toxic to fish and leached hazardous metals,” wrote Suko in his decision.
The Colville Tribes heralded the August ruling.
“For nearly a century, Teck’s smelter has released slag and liquid effluent, a toxic byproduct of metals refining, directly into the Columbia River, and has pumped toxins into the air that polluted Tribal and Washington State lands,” said the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in an August 18 statement. “More than 10 million tons of the granular slag created the ‘black sand’ beaches of the Upper Columbia, a 150-mile reach of the river between the Canadian border and Grand Coulee Dam.”
And that pollution, regardless of its origin, did great damage.
“This river is the heart of our people,” said former Tribal Chairman John Sirois in the tribes’ statement. “It has always been and will always be our homeland, and damages to our natural resources must be addressed. Water is at the heart of who we are as a people. The Columbia River is both a national treasure and the cultural and spiritual center for the Colville people.”